Akira Kurosawa is my favourite filmmaker in history, not only for his determined cinematic vision, but for the character permeated throughout every one of his films. Outside of Anime and Godzilla (1954), Kurosawa’s films are the most recognised contribution to Japanese cinema. Starting his career as an assistant director, he learnt his craft by involving himself in most levels of filmmaking in order to perfect his skills. Progressing from there he became the director of some of the finest examples of cinema over a career spanning 60 years.
By far, Kurosawa’s greatest cinematic achievement is Seven Samurai (1954), a film which has since gone down as one of the most innovative in history, rivalling the likes of Citizen Kane (1941) and Breathless (1960). Starring Kurosawa favourites, Toshirô Mifune, Takashi Shimura and Keiko Tsushima, Seven Samurai takes places in late 16th Century Japan, focusing on a small village that must employ ronin – masterless samurai – to protect itself from a hoard of bandits. Over its 201-minute running time it explores every level of feudal Japan and boasts some of the most captivating battle scenes ever. Through a crafted yet sparse film style Kurosawa brings to life the heat of the moment and delicately heightens the anticipation leading up to the final battle. Kurosawa’s magnum opus employed many elements that are now common place: the ‘wipe effect’ popularised by Star Wars, slow motion sequences, the reluctant hero, to name but a few. Many of these had appeared in films before, but Kurosawa sought to pool them for maximum effect.
Seven Samurai, much like the rest of Kurosawa’s work, was something of a departure from traditional samurai films. Samurai films were often set in the relative tranquillity of 18th & 19th Century Tokugawa Japan. However, Kurosawa set his films in a far more turbulent period; the Sengoku period of the mid-15th to early 17th Century, a period defined by civil war and social upheaval. It was this appetite for danger which pervaded throughout Kurosawa’s samurai films and is a defining characteristic of Seven Samurai.
However, Kurosawa’s brilliance was by no means reserved to Seven Samurai, a personal favourite which came later in his career, Yojimbo (1961) is a superb homage to the Western genre and the work of John Ford focuses on a nameless ronin and his experiences in a crime-riddled town. Additionally, the sublimely simple Rashoman (1950) is by far one the purest examples of Kurosawa’s abilities, composed of a few sets, a small cast and a captivating plot. These are but a few of Kurosawa’s achievements, and to the most part my favourites, but with a body of work as extensive as Kurosawa’s I imagine everyone will take away their own personal favourites. A continual testament to Kurosawa’s ability as a director is the number of adaptations which have been based on his work. Seven Samurai was the inspiration for John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven (1960), Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964) was a reworking of Yojimbo and perhaps most famously of all George Lucas took a great deal of influence from Hidden Fortress (1958) when making Star Wars.
Ultimately, I love the work of Kurosawa because it embodies a characteristic which is absorption at its most hypnotising. A master of tension and delicate craftsmanship, Kurosawa creates a magnetic style that draws the viewer’s attention to every brilliantly constructed mise en scene, every superb performances and every original take on filmmaking. With a rich and varied body of work, Kurosawa remains my favourite filmmaker because of his masterful ability to draw me into a film and to manipulate the experience so seamlessly – he’s second to none in terms of directorial skill.